Spaghetti and Meatballs – Overthinking Classics

Spaghetti and Meatballs - Overthinking Classics
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I’m back with another installment of my Overthinking Classics series. And today, I’m tackling what many North Americans consider to be the most iconic pasta dish of all time – Spaghetti and Meatballs. This dish has graced countless menus, found its way into the weekly rotation of numerous households, and even had a star-making turn in a Disney classic. Now, it’s always dangerous to meddle with a beloved classic such as this. And don’t worry, I believe that your Nonna’s is way better and I would love to try it. But this is how I like my Spaghetti and Meatballs. And if you have yet to swear allegiance to any particular rendition, this might be the spaghetti and meatballs for you. So let’s dive in!

When I make spaghetti and meatballs, I like to start with the meatballs. That way I can sear the meatballs in the skillet and build my sauce on the fat and fond they generate. These meatballs feature a mixture of lean ground beef, toasted fennel seeds, orange zest, garlic, basil, breadcrumbs, Grana Padano, spices, and an egg. Yeah, they are fully loaded. Now, you can play with this combo all you like. You could do a medley of beef and pork or beef and lamb. You could add more heat or change up the spices. But I would urge you to keep the orange zest and the fennel seeds. They really give the meatballs personality.

Spaghetti and Meatballs - Overthinking Classics

Now let’s talk sauce. As I mentioned, I like to brown my meatballs and create a solid foundation for my sauce at the same time. And once the meatballs are browned, all you have to do is make a simple marinara. But it won’t taste simple and it won’t taste like a 15-minute sauce for two reasons. The first is those caramelized meatball bits that have accumulated in the bottom of the pan. And the second is the parm rind we’re going to simmer with the sauce. Now, the rind is optional but like the orange zest and the fennel seeds, I do strongly advise it. But what is a parm rind? Well, it’s just the waxy bit you have left after you’ve made your way through a block of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano. I like to stash them in my freezer, in case of stock or sauce-related emergencies.

Spaghetti and Meatballs - Overthinking Classics

The sauce itself is a very simple affair comprised of a can of tomatoes, an onion, garlic, and a few spices. I like to puree my marinara. But if you would prefer a chunkier sauce, you can just coarsely crush the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Or, better yet, add a can of diced tomatoes instead.

Once the sauce is where you want it, return the sauce and meatballs to the skillet. Bring everything up to a simmer. When browning the meatballs you don’t have to worry about cooking them through. This final step will finish them off for you. You only have to simmer the sauce for 10 minutes. From here, it’s as simple as piling some pasta into a bowl and spooning the meatballs and sauce over top. Garnish with Grana Padano and fresh basil and you’re off to the races.

So that’s everything you need to know about this rendition of Spaghetti and Meatballs. And if you have any lingering questions, I’m sure the lady in the video below will have the answers. I hope you dig this one, it’s just a solid comfort food classic.


Spaghetti and Meatballs - Overthinking Classics

Spaghetti and Meatballs

This take on the classic Spaghetti and Meatballs features orbs of ground beef studded with fennel seeds and orange zest served in a rich marinara sauce draped over a tangle of chewy spaghetti.
5 from 1 vote
Prep Time 40 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Course Main Course
Servings 4


  • 1 Large, deep skillet
  • 1 Large pot


Classic Meatballs

  • 2 tsp whole fennel seeds
  • 454g (1lb) lean ground beef
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • ½ orange zested
  • ½ cup Grana Padano shredded
  • cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil chiffonade
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • fresh ground pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil

Classic Marinara

  • 1 yellow onion diced
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 tbsp tomato pasta heaping
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • cup white wine
  • 796ml (20 fl oz) can whole tomatoes
  • 1 parm rind optional
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tbsp fresh basil chiffonade

For Serving

  • 500g (18oz) dried spaghetti
  • Shredded Grana Padano for sprinkling
  • fresh basil leaves for sprinkling


For the Meatballs

  • Place the fennel seeds in a large deep skillet. Toast over medium heat, shaking the pan frequently. Once the seeds are fragrant, transfer them to a bowl and set them aside.
    2 tsp whole fennel seeds
  • Place the beef in a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients except the oil and mix with a spoon or clean hands until a cohesive mixture forms.
    454g (1lb) lean ground beef, 2 cloves garlic, ½ orange, ½ cup Grana Padano, ⅓ cup breadcrumbs, 1 large egg, 2 tbsp fresh basil, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes, 1 tsp salt, fresh ground pepper
  • Take out a small baking sheet or a large plate and place it alongside the bowl. Using a tablespoon as a guide form the beef mixture into a series of meatballs. **
  • Once the meatballs are formed, pour the olive oil into the skillet you used to toast the fennel seeds. Once the oil is shimmering add the meatballs and brown them on all sides. Transfer them to a plate and set them aside. ***
    2 tbsp olive oil

For the Marinara

  • Add the onion to the skillet you seared the meatballs in along with a generous pinch of salt. Sauté until translucent.
    1 yellow onion
  • Once the onions are translucent, add the garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and tomato paste. Give everything a stir and let cook for about a minute.
    2 cloves garlic, 1 tbsp tomato pasta, 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • Deglaze the pan with the white wine and add the whole plum tomatoes. Break the tomatoes up with the back of your spoon. Increase the heat and bring the sauce up to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the Parm rind and bay leaves. Let simmer for 15 minutes.
    ⅓ cup white wine, 796ml (20 fl oz) can whole tomatoes, 1 parm rind, 2 bay leaves
  • Once the sauce is done simmering, take it off of the heat and fish out the Parma rind and the bay leaves. Transfer the sauce to a blender or food processor and blitz until smooth. Pour the sauce back into the skillet and bring it back up to a simmer. Place the meatballs in the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • When you're ready to serve, take the sauce off of the heat and stir in the basil. ****
    2 tbsp fresh basil

To Assemble

  • Place a large pot of water over high heat and bring it up to a boil. Liberally salt the water and add the spaghetti and cook until al dente. Drain and divide the pasta across four bowls.
    500g (18oz) dried spaghetti
  • Spoon the sauce and meatballs over the pasta – aim for 3-4 meatballs per serving – and garnish with shredded Grana Padano and fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately.
    Shredded Grana Padano, fresh basil leaves


** You can of course make your meatballs a lot larger than this. I prefer a two-bite-sized meatball. They’re easier to break up with your fork and they cook through in the sauce in a fraction of the time. But you do you.
*** Don’t worry about cooking the meatballs all the way through. We are going to simmer them in the sauce at the end and that should finish them off. 
****. Wait to add the basil to the sauce after your pasta is cooked and ready to go.
Keyword marinara, meatballs, Pasta, spaghetti

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  1. 5 stars
    Susan, as an Italian and avowed pasta snob, I probably should not critique a wonderful dish like this. But I do have a few comments which I will post on YouTube.

    One thing I will say is nice catch and correction on Abruzzo. The correct name is Abruzzo, even if the name Abruzzi is still used. Many foreigners often call it Abruzzi because when their ancestors left Italy, the region was still named Abruzzi. Because there are so many dialects in Italy (especially in the south) Abruzzi is certainly acceptable and used interchangeably.

    One of the overriding rules of the Italian language is the reason you say it one way and not another is “because it sounds better”. It can be as simple as that.

    1. Hi Charlie,

      Thank you for your thoughts. As I wrote at the beginning of the article, this is simply how I make spaghetti and meatballs. I wouldn’t call myself an authority on Italian-American food. Just a fan!